US, automakers launch fuel cell initiative
Jan 9, 2002 12:00 PM, By Justin Hyde
DETROIT, Jan 9 (Reuters) - A new effort between the U.S. government and the Big Three automakers to make hydrogen-powered vehicles viable could take years if not decades to meet its goals, officials said on Wednesday.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said the joint research project, called Freedom CAR, would eventually help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and end pollution from vehicles. "The long-term results of this cooperative effort will be cars and trucks that are more efficient, cheaper to operate, pollution-free and competitive in the showroom," Abraham said. "The gas guzzler will be a thing of the past."
Freedom CAR was unveiled Wednesday morning at the Detroit international auto show by Abraham and executives from General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co and the Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler AG.
Under the program, the government will fund research into fuel cells, which use hydrogen to produce electricity without creating pollution as gasoline engines do. The deal will also advance different ways of handling hydrogen and create an infrastructure to make hydrogen fuels widely available.
But Abraham did not offer any immediate goals for the program or reveal its funding level, saying that number would be released when President Bush submits his budget in a few weeks. "Our vision spans several decades," he said.
Environmentalists say the Freedom CAR program should not absolve automakers of the responsibility to raise the fuel economy of their current vehicles.
The same companies who unveiled Freedom CAR have been fighting increases in federal mileage standards and have continued to shift more of their production into gas-thirsty trucks.
The previous government-industry research effort to build family sedans that could get 80 miles to the gallon "has been used as a shield against higher fuel economy standards for decades," said Jason Mark, transportation analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "This program shouldn't be used for the same purposes...We need fuel consumption improvements now," he said.
Automakers have been spending billions of dollars on research to develop fuel cells as an eventual replacement for gasoline-powered combustion engines, which have powered cars for more than 100 years. But a big hurdle for the widespread adoption of fuel cell vehicles is the need for an infrastructure to make hydrogen more available.
David Garman, assistant U.S. secretary for energy efficiency, said 30 percent to 40 percent of U.S. gas stations, or 52,000 to 70,000 locations, would have to offer hydrogen to make fuel cell vehicles viable.
"This is a long-term investment," Abraham said. "The kinds of things that will lead to the outcome of a hydrogen fuel cell economy for transportation will take a number of years."
Freedom CAR will replace the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) program, a multibillion-dollar research effort between automakers and the U.S. government that sought to develop an affordable, gasoline-powered, family sedan capable of getting 80 miles per gallon by 2004.
Automakers have succeeded in building a few highly fuel-efficient cars, but they would cost several thousand dollars more than comparably priced conventional vehicles if they went on sale. "A car that gets 80 miles per gallon means nothing in the real world if no one can afford it," said GM Chairman Jack Smith.
The Bush administration proposed last year to slash the program's $141 million research budget within the Energy Department by $40 million, but Congress restored most of the funding.